We live in a culture in which it is the norm for advertising to feature images of young men and women that are painfully thin to begin with, not to mention airbrushed to look even skinnier and more “perfect” than normal. This is set up as our beauty ideal. Add to that the fact that practically the only legal form of discrimination remaining revolves around those who are overweight and you can see why it’s not that uncommon for teens and even younger kids to develop eating disorders. As a parent, you can help to ensure that this disease doesn’t take root in your household, first and foremost by providing your kids with healthy, balanced, and nutritious meals (rather than the fast food and pre-packaged fare that are prevalent in many modern homes). But you should also stay involved in the lives of your children and keep an eye out for signs of an eating disorder. Here are a few to watch for.
- Negative body image. If your kids are constantly putting themselves down or saying that they wish they looked like others, you should take note. While it’s normal for adolescents to want to reinvent themselves over and over until they find a persona that fits them best, and this is a normal part of growth and development, a negative body image that doesn’t seem to improve could be the first sign that an eating disorder is developing instead. And the sooner you address these negative emotions the better chance you have to curb them and create a positive attitude for life.
- Changes in eating and exercise. If you pay attention to your kids then you are well aware of their habits when it comes to eating and exercise. Any abrupt and major changes to either or both of these areas should raise a red flag. A kid that is eating a lot less and exercising a lot more could be anorexic and one who starts eating significantly more (without gaining weight) could be bulimic. Of course, just because your kid expresses a sudden interest in sports or doesn’t feel particularly inclined to eat breakfast before school (perhaps preferring to sleep in), it doesn’t mean that an eating disorder is to blame. But dramatic changes in these areas are a good indicator that something is off, and you should look into the situation.
- Obsessive behavior. Kids that become obsessive about food, being thin, being perfect, and so on may be headed for an eating disorder. These types of thoughts are typical of adolescents, but not to an obsessive degree. So pay attention to how often they mention such thoughts or how they approach the act of eating, dressing, and so on.
- Emotional extremes. When kids have an eating disorder they often experience a gamut of negative emotions, such as anxiety, depression, anger, guilt, shame, self-loathing, hopelessness, and so on. This can present itself though both emotional outbursts and an emotional disconnect, in which there is either no emotion or a denial of emotions. As an attentive parent you will certainly notice these changes in attitude and behavior, and while you may not know what is causing them, you will certainly want to get your child some help to determine whether the cause is an eating disorder or something else.
- Social withdrawal. Kids that are dealing with eating disorders may withdraw from friends and activities as a way to hide their problems. Any type of social withdrawal signals a serious issue since children and adolescents rely heavily on their peers for support and approval. So if you notice this type of behavior, it could be time to look into treatment for eating disorders, although other factors may also be to blame.